The trials and tribulations of being a deputy headteacher…

Written by: Laura Knight | Published:
Image: iStock

Laura Knight is in her second deputy headship. We asked her to describe the unique aspects of the role, the skills required and the sheer range of tasks that a deputy may be required to perform

Deputy headteacher: the job title means that on some occasions, when the headteacher is out, you do all of the things they do. Indeed, many heads themselves say that the deputy head role is harder than their own. Whether this is accurate or not, it is certainly true that as a deputy you have your fingers in a great many pies.

First and foremost – most deputies teach, and for those deputies who no longer teach, many continue to interact with the children through cover, intervention groups and mentoring.

When you are a deputy, balancing fuller teaching responsibilities alongside your leadership role can be a demanding and challenging task. Maintaining high-quality planning, preparation and marking while ensuring you fulfil other strategic and supporting roles, as well as the day-to-day business of helping to lead the school, can require skill, organisation and a persistent drive.

In many schools it can be the deputy head who is on the ground, involved in developing effective practice, focused on improving teaching and learning. As such, much of a deputy’s time can be taken up with coaching, support and discussion (and working with staff can be as rewarding – and frustrating! – as working with the children).

A crucial part of a deputy, or any senior leader’s role, is nurturing the staff, training them and facilitating development opportunities and trusting people to do a great job. Taking the time to reflect upon and appreciate the positive impact you make as a deputy is important, whether that be on the progress children make or that of other teachers.

“Have you got a minute?”

And the answer, although sometimes you dearly wish to say “no, sorry”, is always “yes, of course”. As a deputy, you find yourself in the middle of everything, the go-between, bridging the gap between the teaching staff and the head.

At times, in any school, hard questions have to be asked and you can find yourself having challenging conversations. Finding the best way to deliver a difficult message takes high levels of diplomacy and sensitivity. Remembering to temper tough issues and be constructive by reinforcing the positive and using praise can make the difference when trying to support others.

You have to resolve yourself to the idea that you cannot always get everything right for all people but you always need to have an open door, a box of tissues and a listening ear.

The 80:20 rule is of the essence here. In schools this translates to spending 80 per cent of your time focused on 20 per cent of children, parents or staff (specifically the NQTs).

Popping into classes, getting into the staffroom and being a presence around school or the playground can also be important to ensuring that you are accessible and approachable for all.

However, the one person you can probably spend more time working with and have a far greater understanding of than anyone else is the headteacher. The reciprocal relationship between head and deputy is a distinctive partnership in any school. With a great head you can learn what can make a really great school and be cultivated into a great senior leader yourself.

The place of a deputy head is also to support and challenge the head. And while you can be the buffer for the staff to share their worries with, it is important that you and the head are there to back each other up, too.

To do or not to do?

How you manage and organise your time as a deputy is crucial not only to your output in school but also to your work/life balance at home.

Leaders and managers will all have their own time management strategies – we all work in different ways and the pressure that can be felt in schools can be motivator and hindrance alike. Something that works for me are the four Ds, which is a way of prioritising what must be done and when:

  • Do: these are the things that need to be dealt with that day or week.
  • Delegate: as a deputy it can be difficult to relinquish control but it is beneficial to yourself and the development of others to sometimes ask for help or give tasks away.
  • Delay: not all things have to be done straight away, you can put some things off. Just don’t forget to come back to them.
  • Dump: also known as, “I’ll file that in the (recycle) bin”.

However you organise yourself, the principles outlined above are so useful. Everything really does not need to be done immediately by you, just done well and in good time.

As a profession, teachers are always tinkering and assume that there is always room for improvement. So much of what we do is self-directed and the trick is to know actually when to stop and be content that you have done a good job.

Charging the battery

As a deputy head your job is highly rewarding and worthwhile, yet it’s all consuming “everythingness” can also be relentless and can test your powers of resilience.

Your internal stores of motivation, commitment and enthusiasm often deplete as the term nears an end. It is so important to recharge to ensure that your own productivity, and therefore the productivity of your staff and your school, remains high.

Not only that, but you can often be the barometer for the feelings of the staff who pick up on the overall stress level in school. Being able to recognise this within yourself and around you is important for the emotional climate in school.

Exploring the things that will help you and the school recharge can ensure a happy and healthy life for all. Certainly celebrating successes is vital, whether that is an individual child progressing well or a positive outcome for school improvement. For the school, it can be encouraging staff to take a break and get together socially or reflecting on those things that are going well.

And finally…

For some the deputy head role is a brief stepping-stone to bigger and bossier things. For me the deputy role has always been the very best – and occasionally the worst! – of jobs. It is really important to find the right school at the right time (with the right head). Potentially you can be one of the most influential people in school with a fantastic front row view of the Big Picture.

If you are a deputy, or considering becoming one, I know from experience that it is a privilege to see everything about the school, from teaching to safeguarding to recruitment to finance, but always with learning at the heart.


  • Laura Knight is currently in her second deputy headship. She is deputy principal at Rudheath Primary Academy in Northwich, Cheshire. Rudheath Primary Academy is a Focus Academy Trust school. Focus Education works with more than 3,500 schools across England. Visit www.focus-education.co.uk/blog/


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